US in­dicts leader of Venezuela on drug charges

The Kansas City Star - - News - BY JOSHUA GOOD­MAN AND JIM MUSTIAN

The U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice an­nounced Thurs­day that it has in­dicted Venezuela’s so­cial­ist leader Ni­co­las Maduro and sev­eral key aides on charges of nar­coter­ror­ism.

The depart­ment ac­cused them of con­spir­ing with Colom­bian rebels “to flood the United States with co­caine.”

“We es­ti­mate that some­where be­tween 200 and 250 met­ric tons of co­caine are shipped out of Venezuela by these routes. Those 250 met­ric tons equates to 30 mil­lion lethal doses,” it said.

As the in­dict­ments were un­sealed, Sec­re­tary of

State Mike Pom­peo an­nounced that the State Depart­ment would of­fer cash re­wards of up to $55 mil­lion for in­for­ma­tion lead­ing to the ar­rests or con­vic­tions of Maduro and four of his as­so­ciates. The re­wards, up to $15 mil­lion for Maduro and up to $10 mil­lion each for the oth­ers, are be­ing of­fered un­der the depart­ment’s Nar­cotics Re­wards Pro­gram, which has paid more than $130 mil­lion in awards for in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing some 75 drug traf­fick­ers since it was cre­ated in 1986.

“While hold­ing key po­si­tions in the Maduro regime, these in­di­vid­u­als vi­o­lated the pub­lic trust by fa­cil­i­tat­ing ship­ments of nar­cotics from Venezuela, in­clud­ing con­trol over planes that leave from a Venezue­lan air base, as well as con­trol of drug routes through the ports in Venezuela,” Pom­peo said in a state­ment.

The in­dict­ment of a func­tion­ing head of state is highly un­usual and is bound to ratchet up ten­sions be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Cara­cas as the spread of the coro­n­avirus threat­ens to col­lapse a health sys­tem and oil-de­pen­dent econ­omy driven deep into the ground by years of cor­rup­tion and U.S. sanc­tions.

An­a­lysts said the ac­tion could boost Trump’s re­elec­tion chances in the key swing state of Florida, which he won by a nar­row mar­gin in 2016 and where Venezue­lans, Cubans and Nicaraguan­s flee­ing au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes have po­lit­i­cal mus­cle.

But its un­clear how it brings Venezuela any closer to end­ing a 15month stand­off be­tween Maduro, who has the sup­port of Rus­sia and China, and the U.S.backed op­po­si­tion leader Juan Guaido. It also could frag­ment the U.S.-led coali­tion against Maduro if Euro­pean and Latin Amer­i­can al­lies think the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is over­reach­ing.

“This kind of ac­tion does noth­ing to help a ne­go­ti­ated so­lu­tion–some­thing that’s al­ready really dif­fi­cult,” said Roberta Ja­cob­son, who served as the State Depart­ment’s top diplo­mat for Latin Amer­ica un­til 2018.

Maduro, a 57-year-old for­mer bus driver, por­trays him­self as an ev­ery­man icon of the Latin Amer­i­can left. He’s long ac­cused the U.S. “em­pire“of look­ing for any ex­cuse to take con­trol of the world’s largest oil re­serves, liken­ing its plot­ting to the 1989 in­va­sion of Panama and the re­moval of Gen. Manuel Nor­iega to face drug traf­fick­ing charges in Florida.

Barr and El­liott Abrams, the State Depart­ment’s spe­cial en­voy on Venezuela, are driv­ing the hawk­ish U.S. stance to­ward Maduro much as they pushed for Nor­iega’s ouster in the late 1980s – Barr as a se­nior Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial and Abrams as as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for Latin Amer­ica.

U.S. of­fi­cials see other par­al­lels as well. Nor­iega trans­formed Panama into a play­ground for vi­o­lent, in­ter­na­tional drug car­tels while the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has ac­cused Maduro and his mil­i­tary hench­men of har­bor­ing drug traf­fick­ers, guer­ril­las from Colom­bia and even Hezbol­lah, a des­ig­nated ter­ror­ist group.

They also have ac­cused gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials to­gether with well-connected busi­ness­men of steal­ing hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars from the state cof­fers, much of it from state oil gi­ant PDVSA, which has seen its pro­duc­tion plunge to a sev­en­decade low.

Ni­co­las Maduro

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